Chicago v. Morales
Significance: The Supreme Court held that an antiloitering ordinance was unconstitutionally vague, failing to give ordinary citizens fair notice about the kinds of conduct that are prohibited and allowing the police too much unguided discretion.
In 1992 the Chicago city council enacted a law making it a misdemeanor to remain in one place with “no apparent purpose” in the presence of a suspected gang member when ordered to move by a police officer. During its three years of application, forty-two thousand people were arrested under the law. Many cities looked to the law as a model for reclaiming streets from gangs that used loitering as a strategy to control territory. A 6-3 majority of the justices found that the law violated due process standards because of the vagueness issue. Three members of the majority wanted to rule that the freedom to loiter for innocent purposes was part of the “liberty” protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. In a strong dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas accused the majority of sentencing “law-abiding citizens to lives of terror and misery.” The justices appeared to agree that a law narrowly worded to prohibit intimidating conduct on the streets would be constitutional. Because the Supreme Court recognized the problems associated with city gangs, the tone of the Chicago decision was quite different from Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville (1972), in which the Court, in an opinion written by Justice William O. Douglas, struck down a vagrancy law by referring to the values of nonconformity and the open road as extolled by poets Walt Whitman and Vachel Lindsay.